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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Thankful for Title IX, all sports heroes

By Mechelle Voepel

Here are the female athletes you might know who made a big impression on me as I grew up in the 1970s.

Figure skater Dorothy Hamill and speed skater Sheila Young from the first Olympics I watched avidly, the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Gymnast Nadia Comaneci and diver Jenny Chandler from the '76 Summer Games in Montreal.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, whom I first saw in a televised indoor tournament when she was still a Czech teenager. Nancy Lopez, who had that amazing smile. Janet Guthrie at the Indy 500, and Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney, whose name I always heard along with "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in radio advertisements for drag racing in St. Louis.

I was a baseball and football maniac then, when there were still two teams of Cardinals in the Gateway City. There was no sport I wouldn't watch on TV: basketball, boxing, bowling, hockey, cycling, skiing, tennis, soccer, golf, track, auto racing. Even the Acapulco cliff diving on "Wide World of Sports" and "Wrestling at the Chase" on Sunday mornings on St. Louis' Channel 11.

Martina Navratilova
Women's team sports were rarely on television in the 1970s and '80s, but individual stars such as Martina Navratilova became familiar faces.

Who was picky then? In those days, if you loved sports, you gladly took whatever was given. That didn't include a whole lot of women's sports. So whenever women athletes did get some airtime, it really resonated.

Those names and faces are still so vivid in my head. The thing is, it's the same for my male sports heroes then, such as Lou Brock of the baseball Cardinals and Jim Hart of the football Cards and the Minnesota Vikings' Fran Tarkenton.

Men and women and every sport they played … it was all just one big swirl of excitement to me, the reason weekends existed. On some level, I knew I saw less of the women and understood they had a particular importance to me.

But the joys were just the same. Brock's stolen-base record and Nadia's perfect 10s brought transcendent happiness. I didn't differentiate.

I was 8 in 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and, yes, I was rooting for her and proud she won. But even then, I never really thought of it as women versus men … more "nice people" versus chauvinism. That was the way my mind worked at that age.

I don't know exactly how old you have to be to recognize that male athletes, in general, are bigger, stronger and faster than female athletes. Certainly at 8, I already knew that. So I wouldn't have expected BJK to beat a male her age then. It wasn't about that.

It was this old guy carping that she wasn't any good at all just because she was a woman. I didn't know at the time that Riggs was laying it on so thick because he was the consummate showman and huckster. To my 8-year-old self, he was just being mean.

Of course, when she won easily, and Riggs was very gracious -- making no excuses -- I realized maybe he wasn't mean at all. He just needed to see her really compete. Then he knew, and he was on her side. She had won his respect.

Something else happened in the 1970s that is very vivid to me. There was an ice cream social -- remember those things? -- and a man came up and introduced himself to my dad. He mentioned he was going to be the coach for the new girls' basketball team at the local high school.

This was in 1974, and it still sticks in my head: the day I first heard the high school would actually have a girls' team.

Dawn Staley
Dawn Staley starred for Virginia and the U.S. women's basketball team before becoming a college coach.

Because then there were female athletes -- whom you wouldn't know -- who made a big impression on me. Girls whose names and pictures started appearing regularly in basketball stories in the little newspaper in town. That's all it takes for someone to be a major celebrity to a grade-schooler. It's funny to think that if I met one of those "girls" now -- they'd be in their 50s -- the first thing I'd still think was, "Wow, I used to read about you in the newspaper!"

Years later, I would be working at a newspaper and was editing a story about a young girl in Charlottesville, Va., with a very troubled home life. She had been atop a building, threatening to jump to her death. In talking with her, the one thing police found she responded positively to was the Virginia women's basketball team and in particular its star guard. Dawn Staley was the girl's idol.

Well, the police called the women's basketball office, which got in touch with Staley, then a senior at Virginia. She went to the building to talk to the girl, who walked away from the edge.

I asked Staley about five years ago whether she knew what had become of the girl. She said, unfortunately, she didn't. You'd like to think the girl's life got brighter. But one thing is for sure: It was a female athlete who had, at least on that one very dark day, been a shining light to her.

We all need our heroes, and as I said, mine were men and women. They still are. This statement might irritate the guys who essentially loathe women's sports -- or more likely, they'll just laugh at it. But the truth is, I've always felt a little sorry for them about what they miss.

I've spent a lot of my career covering women's sports, but I've covered a fair amount of men's sports, too. And I absolutely can't imagine my life without both. There's so much in the world that isn't any fun at all. The endeavors of male and female athletes can give us such a boost, and provide so much inspiration.

Nancy Lopez
Nancy Lopez and that winning smile were legendary on the LPGA tour.

I understand that everything is not for everybody. It's never indifference toward women's sports that bothers me. It's the torrent of negativity that some direct toward them, the bile that comes from those implausibly worried about having to share a little turf. Sometimes I say to them, "The relatively little attention that women's sports still gets -- compared to the understandable avalanche for men's sports -- really bothers you that much? If so, how do you endure anything that actually is difficult in your life?"

That sounds much snarkier than I mean it. And in regard to what will be memorialized June 23, I don't want to be snarky at all. It's something else that happened in the 1970s, although at the time, I didn't know about it. Eventually, it would become hugely important to me, though.

Admittedly, this commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX has at times been a little like going to a birthday party where many people show up, but some definitely aren't there to celebrate. They came to point out the flaws of the guest of honor.

Not too much -- least of all facts or reasonable discussion -- will sway those with the mindset that Title IX has "killed men's sports" or "was good at the beginning but has gone way too far" or "just isn't needed anymore."

I get where some of their anger comes from, although I think it's very misdirected. The disappointments that have been felt by those who had their sports cut at schools they attended or wanted to attend -- that's real pain. But the answer isn't demonizing Title IX. It's neither accurate nor fair. I think it's important over the next 40 years to work toward building as many bridges between women's and men's athletics as possible.

The women I mentioned at the start of this story were, for the most part, well on their respective sports' paths before Title IX. But you'll notice they all were in individual sports, not team sports. Title IX most definitely paved the way for thousands of girls and women to have teams. It gave all women athletes more of a chance.

And I have to say it paved the way for me to write about those teams and individuals, to cover events and visit places that my 1970s self could barely imagine -- but would have been utterly thrilled to look forward to.